Industry bad, public good

By Eric Crampton 27/02/2015

So the official line seems to be that industry money always corrupts, but that public funding never does. Here’s Otago’s Jim Mann:

As a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) nutrition advisory committee, Mann himself cannot accept funding or gifts of any kind from the commercial sector.

“I’m glad that while with WHO, I’ve been in a position where I’ve not been able to accept funding for any project I’ve lead. I don’t even feel able to accept an invitation to go out to lunch,” he says.

The story feeds off a recent set of articles in the BMJ running conspiracy stories about industry funding. I suppose that membership in WHO advisory committees couldn’t itself possibly be the source of any conflict of interest.

There seems to me to be a growing international push to shut down research that disagrees with the comfortable public health party line. Making industry funding controversial per se makes it more difficult for university researchers doing work funded by industry, regardless of the amount of academic freedom built into any of the arrangements and regardless of the oversight arrangements.

So where does the whole “industry necessarily corrupt and evil; government-funded NGOs necessarily good” line lead? Well, let’s look to today’s* news from Western Australia.

Healthway was established to fill the sports sponsorship gap when they banned tobacco sports sponsorship. Healthway was so pure in spirit, that they didn’t ever want to have anything to do with anybody who’d ever had any dealings with the tobacco industry – maybe they’d have suffered second-hand corruption or something:

The Board considered an addition to the existing policy with respect to contractual arrangements with companies or organisations which may have tobacco company involvement to reflect other possible “connections” or association with the tobacco industry. The Board approved that:
Subject to any contrary law, Healthway will not deal with any:
  • Person, company or entity receiving money or revenues from the tobacco industry or its associated foundations, whether directly or indirectly, or having arrangements, or dealings with the tobacco industry, whether directly or indirectly, which may actually, potentially or perceivably compromise tobacco control initiatives;
  • Person, company, foundation or entity that directly or indirectly has arrangements, connections or dealings with the sales, promotion or distribution of tobacco products which may actually, potentially or perceivably compromise tobacco control initiatives.

And in today’s news, it looks like Healthaway’s sponsorship didn’t just require being entirely pure about never having ever ever touched a smoke. It seems to have required giving lots of complementary tickets to the Healthaway Board. Because by definition, if it’s done by a government-funded NGO, it totally can’t be wrong.

Premier Colin Barnett will meet Public Sector Commissioner Mal Wauchope today to discuss the future of prominent Healthway chairwoman Rosanna Capolingua and her board after a damning investigation uncovered a VIP ticket scandal, plunging the taxpayer-funded health promotion agency into crisis.

The investigation, conducted by the Public Sector Commission after irregularities were uncovered by the Auditor-General, found Healthway procured thousands of tickets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars through sponsorship agreements.

Some of these went to family and friends of Dr Capolingua, former Healthway executive director David Malone, deputy chair Cathcart Weatherley and other staff.

The investigation found the volume and nature of hospitality benefits obtained via sponsorships of the Perth Wildcats, Perth Glory, WA Cricket Association and concert promoter Mellen Events were “excessive and inconsistent with the obligation to be scrupulous in the use of public resources” under the Public Sector code of ethics.

Is there any known safe level of government funding? What can we do to help to reduce the risk?

* Originally published at Offsetting Behaviour 20 February.

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